For as long as most Puebloans can recall, the city’s form of government has been a city manager-run municipality. He or she called the shots on most day-to-day decisions. The manager was the town’s chief executive officer. The city council appointed the manager, the manager consulted with council. The two operated cooperatively but independently. In Pueblo, the mayor was essentially a ceremonial title and usually the president of the city council.
But this week, things changed in Pueblo. After Tuesday’s vote, the city moved in an entirely different direction and joined the rest of the state’s biggest cities and elected its first-ever strong mayor.
The new mayor, whose position would be non-partisan, would have the power to appoint the city’s department heads along with budget authority with council’s approval. The mayor’s salary would be set at $150,000.
“Pueblo voters decided that the city needed a visible leader,” said Steve Henson, long-time editor of the Pueblo Chieftain, the oldest and largest newspaper serving southern Colorado. In opting for what has been called a seismic change in local government, said Hanson, the city wanted “someone who could represent the city as the state government leader, with prospective businesses looking at Pueblo as a possible new home, and someone who could push his or her visions forward.”
Part of the push for this new approach to local government is growth, something Pueblo has not been able to match with the same results as other cities that have outpaced it over the last half century. The city was once the second largest in Colorado. It now ranks ninth, nestled between Westminster and Centennial with a 2010 population of just over 110,000.
While not every member of Pueblo’s City Council applauded the move, it did vote 7-0 to approve the election. After winnowing down a large field, Pueblo attorney Nick Gradishar and Pueblo City Councilman Steve Nawrocki emerged as finalists.
In a telephone interview, Gradishar said a city like Pueblo can only benefit from a strong voice. “We’ve had a series of city managers and none lasted more than one term. We need a full-time elected leader.” He believes he can restore the economic vitality Pueblo needs to grow and lamented how it has fallen from its one-time perch as ‘second city,’ to barely holding on in the top ten. The economy, safety and security of its citizens and focus on infrastructure, he said, are his top priorities.
Nawrocki, current CEO of Pueblo’s Senior Resource Development Agency and a former city council member, thinks a change in the way the city operates is overdue. Nawrocki served on city council and voted for the switch in the way the city was run. “The whole idea (of mayor) was to have the face of the city being directly responsible to the people,” he said.
Like his opponent, Nawrocki feels Pueblo has fallen short in realizing its potential. “We need to diversify our economy,” he said, “and make the city more business-friendly.” Pueblo, he added, “is a destination,” but one that has not been marketed in a way that lends itself to growth. “We sit on a major artery (I-25),” said the CEO and former councilman. “Millions of cars drive through our area each year. We need to figure out how to capture them.”
When the idea of making the switch from City Manager to full-time Mayor, 35 candidates stepped up. The number was whittled down to 16. As the clock ticked toward midnight on Tuesday, it was two. Today, Pueblo is taking a new, bold direction with a strong mayor. That person is Nick Gradishar.